Review: On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee

I wanted so much to love this book so much.

photo (60)(Yes, I meant that both ways). I’ve read two of Chang-rae Lee’s other novels, A Gesture Life and Native Speaker, and came away amazed that a writer could approach brutality with such gorgeous prose — without once letting the reader escape from the cruel reality of history. And one of the best books I’ve read in the last three years is another instance of a “literary” writer venturing into the realm of speculative fiction — Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I hoped On Such a Full Sea would become another great entry in the genre. The title comes from Shakespeare, after all.

Alas, ’twas not to be. Pretty much everything I feel about this novel has been better expressed by the grande dame of speculative fiction herself, Ursula K. Le Guin, in this pitch-perfect review for the Guardian.

The novel is framed as a quest narrative: a young woman named Fan leaves her (relatively) safe home to find her beau, Reg, who’s been spirited away to a mysterious lab thanks to a genetic quirk that makes him impervious to ‘C’ — a group of diseases that virtually everyone eventually succumbs to (cancer, unless I’m misreading, and I don’t think I am). Fan and Reg live in B-mor, a future Baltimore stripped of its former residents and converted into a city, built in the novel’s past, for Asian immigrants and their descendants to live and work in — a sort of hive for producing high-quality food for Charters (for these think The Hunger Games‘s Capital, without the outrageous get-ups), towns where the rich competitively and conspicuously consume income derived from white-collar type employment. Between these centers of production and consumption lie “the counties,” where there is loose governmental structure, if any, and survival is never a safe bet.

Fan sets off into the counties, of course, with almost no preparation, preparing to rely on her wits and her physical strength (she’s a fish-minder, and an incredibly strong swimmer, despite her small size) as she searches for Reg.

The novel is narrated in the first-person plural by an amorphous group of B-More citizens, who somehow have access to what goes on during Fan’s journey, and to what goes on in her head. It’s a technique that works well when describing life in B-Mor, and what little we get of this new world’s history, but it’s incredibly off-putting when it turns to Fan. And Fan herself remains a cipher, with very little personality to hold on to. She’s quiet, single-minded, quick-thinking, but somehow cold, not life-like.

As you can probably tell, On Such a Full Sea reads like a contemporary American liberal fantasy of what the world will come to if global warming goes unchecked and economic inequality isn’t ameliorated. That would be all well and good — one of the functions of science fiction, after all, is to critique the present world — but Mr. Lee doesn’t attend to the conventions of the genre (in particular, cohesive world-building), with detrimental results.

Here’s an example. Commodities in the novel are simultaneously difficult to acquire and unreasonably available. At one point Fan is offered a carton of soy milk, and then another, and while it’s impressive that her counties host has access to comestibles, at the same time it seems impossible that a world that can’t repair roads is still producing single-serving soy milk containers. As Ms. Le Guin writes,

Neglect of such literal, rational questions in imaginative fiction is often excused, even legitimised, as literary licence. Because the author is known as a literary writer, he will probably be granted the licence he takes. But social science fiction is granted no such irresponsibility, and a novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

Exactly. So very disappointing.

However, Mr. Lee’s prose is still gorgeous as ever, and (again, as Ms. Le Guin points out) he embellishes standard tropes and themes with creative details and few unexpected plot twists. I suspect that we’ll be enjoying Mr. Lee’s contemporary fiction again soon.

5 thoughts on “Review: On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee

  1. It is disappointing that this book wasn’t as good as anticipated, but, for me, it means I don’t have to put it on my list – so thanks! Good review, too! I didn’t realize this was a science fiction-y book. I will have to check out his other novels.

  2. Ah, that’s too bad. I was also interested at first until I saw the consistently blah reviews. On the other hand, thanks for mentioning his other works. I have Native Speaker on my shelves and I’ll look forward to reading that one.

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